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CHIEFS BEGAN THEIR SLIDE WHEN GM LOST POWER

The Monday meltdown in Kansas City didn't happen overnight. It has been at least two years in the making.

There are many reasons for it, but one of the most important is the transfer of power from Carl Peterson, the team's president and general manager, to Marty Schottenheimer, the coach.

Schottzy, like many successful coaches, demanded full authority over personnel and, after the 1996 draft, he got most of what he wanted. Peterson stepped back and watched Schottenheimer hang himself with it.

When the Chiefs finished with a 13-3 record last season, actually winning the championship of the AFC West over Denver but then losing to the Broncos, 14-10, in a divisional playoff game in Arrowhead Stadium, Schottenheimer decided to take some uncharacteristic risks.

The coach whose teams had been known for their conservatism and discipline took a flyer on two gifted but often-subversive defensive stars, huge Chester McGlockton of the Raiders and pass rusher Leslie O'Neal of the Rams. Schottzy felt that his defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, who coached both players early in their careers, could handle them. He was wrong.

"Marty used to say that we could beat the Raiders by letting them beat themselves by losing their discipline," said Neil Smith of the Broncos, a longtime Chief. "Now Kansas City has a team like those Raiders."

Schottenheimer was also wrong about free agent wide receiver Derrick Alexander of Baltimore, another chancy character guy; he felt pairing Alexander with Andre Rison would give him the most dangerous passing attack of his tenure in KC.

Just how much of a risk those moves entailed was outlined by Bill Walsh in his NFL analysis column in the Sept. 14 issue of the Sporting News. Of McGlockton, O'Neal and Alexander, Walsh wrote, "No one can deny that these players have talent, but there are those who wonder what happens if the team gets out of the gate slowly this season."

The Chiefs got out of the gate 4-1, but then they were incinerated by New England and people stopped wondering. KC was a team in insurrection when Denver beat them last Monday.

Most coaches would tell you their team "has character" if the roster were recruited from the most notorious cell block in the tightest maximum security prison. Schottenheimer had been kidding himself about the chemistry on his team before he went into the high-risk free agent market this year. He already had Rison, trouble on his three previous teams, along with Mark McMillian, the well-traveled little cornerback, and Derrick Thomas, who has been the most overrated player in the NFL for at least three years.

Butter wouldn't melt in Thomas' mouth on national TV interviews, but last year after the Chiefs were eliminated by Denver in the playoffs, he stood in the middle of his locker room and trashed the team's offensive coaches.

Then of course, there is the case of linebacker Wayne Simmons. Green Bay delivered a resounding message last season when they dropped the man many NFL people thought was the most effective linebacker in the league playing over the tight end. The Pack was more comfortable with an over-the-hill Seth Joyner as his replacement.

Schottenheimer traded for Simmons, who has a rap sheet the size of a game plan. KC kept Simmons for a year, found him poison in the dressing room and then cut him in the wake of Monday's debacle. Buffalo decided to repeat Schottenheimer's mistake. He'll be in a Bills' uniform today.

Then there was Schottzy's decision on his running game. He decided Greg Hill was too one-dimensional and let him go. That's the same Hill who, until he broke a leg, tore up Buffalo's defense in the Bills' loss to St. Louis in the home opener.

Without Hill, Schottzy decided on using running back by a committee made up of questionable members. One was Donnell Bennett, a fullback all his career. Another was kick returner/wide receiver Tamarick Vanover. The coach was so confident of his plan he didn't draft a running back until the fourth round. That pick was Rashaan Shehee, who isn't ready for prime time.

Has this placed Schottenheimer in jeopardy? Owner Lamar Hunt, humiliated by Monday's night's behavior, is slow to make coaching changes. Remember, however, that 1996 was the last draft in which Peterson had the juice. His first four picks, defensive backs Jerome Woods and Reggie Tongue, defensive lineman John Browning and linebacker Donnie Edwards, have been big producers.

Why has Schottenheimer operated so far out of character? Walsh had the answer way back in September: "After years of having great regular seasons then fizzling in the playoffs, the Chiefs want to get to the Super Bowl."

They haven't been more distant from it since Schottenheimer came to KC in 1989.

Advantage kicks in

It's no coincidence that both NFL powers, Denver and Minnesota, have field goal kickers who are perfect so far this season. Jason Elam of the Broncos is 15 for 15 and veteran Gary Anderson of the Vikings is 18 for 18.

Only one kicker in NFL history, Tony Zendejas of the 1991 Los Angeles Rams, ever connected on every kick he attempted in a season. He was 17 for 17. Behind him is Chris Boniol of the '95 Cowboys (2 7/2 8) and Norm Johnson of the '93 Falcons and Pete Stoyanovich of last year's Chiefs, (2 6/2 7).

FELSER'S TOP 10
1. Denver . . . Bubby working wonders (1)

2. Minnesota . . . Moment of truth vs. Pack (2)

3. Jacksonville . . . Taylor top AFC rookie (4)

4. Atlanta . . . Even Atlantans believing (7)

5. Miami . . . Monday night challenge (6)

6. Green Bay . . . Holmes to rescue (8)

7. Jets . . . Ambushed in Indy (5)

8. Buffalo . . . Pass rush surfaces (9)

9. Tennessee . . . Coming fast (10)

10. San Francisco . . . Playing on past reputation (3)

(Last week in parentheses. NR: Not ranked)